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FICTION George Saunders’ latest stories veer toward tragicomic

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, at 11:27 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, at 7:31 a.m.

But seriously! Is life fun or scary? Are people good or bad?”

— From “Victory Lap” in “Tenth of December”

“Tenth of December: Stories” by George Saunders (Random House, 251 pages, $26)

George Saunders has to be the most misunderstood writer of his generation. Literary critics love his fiction, especially his postmodernist short stories in which he skewers the amusement-park mentality of our consumer society.

His earlier collections, “Civil-

WarLand in Bad Decline” and “Pastoralia,” also proved to be favorites of other writers. Big names like Thomas Pynchon, who called Saunders “an astoundingly tuned writer … telling us just the kinds of stories we need to get us through these times.”

But with nearly every accolade comes this caveat: Saunders resembles X, where X stands for Kurt Vonnegut or Donald Barthelme or Mark Twain.

Few of Saunders’ fans say that he most resembles … himself. But let’s face it: He is an original, energetic, inventive writer, whose works defy categorization, because they reflect no recognizable category — or writer.

This becomes perfectly clear with “Tenth of December,” his latest collection of stories that leaves his trademark social satire behind for a more mature exploration of the defeated morality that beats at the heart of every story, of every storyteller, of every sad-sack ending to every ordinary life.

You can’t enter the universe of Saunders’ fiction without having your expectations turned upside down, without orbiting a sun whose gravitational pull proves unsettling and tantalizing. Vertigo writ large.

Start with his prose. Sharp, cinematic, slangy — cutting from topic to topic like neurons firing in a brainstorm. Characters use the wrong words for the right ends; they never finish sentences, lighting up new ones like verbal chain smokers.

“Ha ha, wow, the mind was amazing, always cranking out these —”

“What’s that proverb? To make something or other, you first have to break a lot of something or other.”

To get the full effect of Saunders’ talent, try reading the stop-start, herky-jerky fragments of the characters’ self-talk aloud. You’ll soon hear how uncannily he captures the intonation of the interior dialogue (not monologue) — between I and I — in an utterly convincing, yet utterly uncomfortable way:

“Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind our peers. Help us, that is, not fall further behind peers.”

Saunders’ characters still inhabit a creepy, Orwellian world, full of wacky brand names like Verbaluce, Vivistiff and LuvInclyned.

The characters still strike us as unlikely protagonists: a young boy who tries to stop a kidnapping next door; a war veteran who returns home to live with his mother, then decides to set the house on fire; a criminal who receives experimental drugs that control his carefully monitored mood swings; an antiques dealer who imagines a series of slights from his rich, oblivious neighbor.

Stumbling, bumbling, swearing at life’s inequities, puzzling over its perplexities, most of the characters seem in hot pursuit of “that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt.”

What may be the biggest surprise about “Tenth of December” is that it has been on the national best-seller lists for weeks. It can’t be Saunders’ style alone that accounts for the book’s success.

Perhaps it is his chillingly prophetic tone, which calls forth the thousand daily failures of our lives; failures of love, pride and self-understanding.

“Tenth of December” holds up a funhouse mirror to our 21st-century foibles, a mirror more tragicomic than satiric. If we find ourselves irresistibly drawn to its distortions, it may be because the images in the looking glass so painfully

resemble ourselves.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or adavenport@wichitaeagle.com.

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